Some of you may remember the original version of this story, written last year for BeKindRewrite’s Voices Week. The goal was to tell the same story with five different voices telling it, and I decided to rework it and submit it to a sports writing contest. It’s probably the hardest I’ve worked on an edit in a long time, and I’m proud of the end result. I won’t know the outcome of the contest until mid-November, but by entering, I’ve fulfilled one of my New Year’s resolutions (to enter a writing contest or submit some of my work for publication). It’s an ongoing resolution but I’m proud of my start so far!
As quarterback Jack Chandler approached the line of scrimmage, the pressure to win overwhelmed him and he momentarily forgot which play had been called. Panicking, he threw his hands up and called a time out, allowing himself to breathe only after the referee’s whistle signaled the interruption in play. For a moment, he wished he saw anyone other than his father waiting for him on the sidelines. His parents had enrolled him in a community league when he was eight years old, and even then Jack had felt pressured to succeed. His father, Jason, was a championship winning offensive coordinator and Jack had always felt the need to meet his expectations, knowing he was a disappointment when he fell short of them. There had been many angry silences on the way home from practices– Jack had felt that his father was harder on him than his teammates, and resentment had quickly become the unspoken part of being an athlete. Now , with so much on the line, Jack realized that his father had helped him become the man he was, and there was nobody he’d rather share the moment with.
The score was 28-34 with nine seconds left on the clock. The ball was on the six yard line and their opponent had missed a field goal earlier in the game; his team could win by one point and advance to the semifinals if they got a touchdown. His father called a quarterback sweep, a play that showed he trusted Jack to get the job done.
“You ok, man?” Michael Collier, his roommate and go-to wide receiver asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Jack smiled as his father clapped him on the shoulder, sending him back onto the field with the knowledge that regardless of what happened, the bond they shared would be his true reward.
With nine seconds left, the fans were going insane. Their hearts pounding, they were expending as much energy as the players on the field, screaming until they lost their voices. Some of them stomped their feet, making the metal bleachers ring, while others chanted and rang cowbells. In the midst of it all stood Tom Kourigan. He’d been a walk-on twenty years earlier, and even though he never played a down, he was as passionate about the Bears as any member of the starting lineup. Now as an insurance salesman, Tom was adamant about making donations to the team and he attended every practice. He knew the coaches and star players by name, and though some of his friends found his behavior excessive, Tom thought it was nothing more than an act of devotion and support. What was the point of going to a game if you weren’t there for the team? It only counted if you showed your school spirit! Football was about more than hanging out with friends and tailgating. It was about tradition…pride…honor!
“What the hell’s your problem? That’s your team, damnit!” he yelled at a disinterested group of coeds. He was about to say something more when his friend grabbed his arm and pulled him back into his seat. “Tom, lighten up, man! They’re taking the field.”
Flashing one final look over his shoulder at the students, Tom roared in support as the players took the field, becoming the twelfth man they needed to left the team to victory.
“I can’t watch, “Deb Coleman whispered, her voice barely audible above the din of the band and the screaming fans. “I seriously can’t watch this.”
Her best friend, Angela Morris, wife of the linebackers coach, took her hand. “It’s okay, Deb. Our husbands have won closer games than this.”
All Deb could do was nod as she watched her husband animatedly discussing the play with the team. Years ago, she had assumed the hardest part of being a coach’s wife would be the time apart from her husband; in reality, watching him put his career in the hands of 85 boys who made stupid mistakes, got distracted and handled pressure differently than men a few years their senior was far more difficult. Doing his job well meant more than just winning: he had to win the important games by the right margins to impress the boosters, who had more control over his tenure than the athletic department. He also had to answer to the fans and their brutal treatment of him when he lost. Over the years they had seen all the creatively cruel ways fans voiced their displeasure – “you suck” had been written on his car in shaving cream, “for sale” signs appeared in his front yard, and death threats circulated online. It was enough to make Deb wonder why anyone would choose to live the coaching life, but her husband’s passion made her proud even as the nerves trapped her breath in her throat. In nine seconds, he would either be sainted or reviled. Deb knew that if love could help her husband win games, he would be undefeated, but love wasn’t enough to overcome the helplessness she felt when all she could do was watch the play unfold as she prayed.
Earl Collison wasn’t your typical football fan. At the age of 89, he sat in the front row, a wheelchair replacing the hard metal bleachers he’d been sitting on for the last 55 years. Nearly seventy years earlier, Earl had been an offensive tackle and his loyalty to the team was just as strong as it had ever been. He’d recently been honored by the school’s booster organization as being the team’s oldest season-ticket holder, but for Earl, the true reward came with still being able to share gameday with his friends and family. His body might be failing, but he still had the heart of a player and would attend games as long as there was breath in his body.
“Help me up.”
“What is it, Dad, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, honey,” he smiled, taking his daughter’s arm and slowly getting to his feet. His knees had given out years earlier – such was the fate of an offensive lineman- but loyalty demanded that he stand. “I just want to support my team.”
They held hands as the whistle sounded. The ball was snapped and Earl held his breath as Jack faked the handoff and the linebackers followed the running back up the sideline.
A quarterback sweep! “Go, Jack, go!” Earl murmured, as though his will could make the play work.
Six yards. Eighteen feet. In nine seconds, it would be over and destiny would be written in the mud on the turf and in the tears of an elderly gentleman whose pride would long outlive anyone in the stadium.